Two of my favorite short stories are Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” and Ernest Gaines’ “The Sky is Gray.” Each of these stories, in different ways, interrogates the deployment of language and how language serves as a foundation to the social construction of race the subversion of that false construction. Morrison states that “‘Recitatif’ was an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”
Throughout “Recitatif,” we, as the reader, do not know which character, Twyla or Roberta, is Black and which is white. This is the point of Morrison’s “experiment.” She calls upon us, as readers, to become co-creators of the text where we actively engage with the social construction of race within the narrative because we, in our minds, determine the race of each character, and that causes us to look at ourselves and our own assumptions. As Joyce Irene Middleton puts it, “Morrison positions her reader, a co-creator of the text, as an active participant who not only interprets the text but also, responsibly, creates an empowering language of one’s own.”
Ernest Gaines, in “The Sky is Gray” and other works, subverts language by using “they” or other pronouns without any clear antecedents. Eight-year-old James narrates “The Sky is Gray,” and when he and his mother board the bus to Bayonne, he states, “They got seats in the front, but I know I can’t sit there, ’cause I have to sit back of the sign.” Here, “they” does not have a direct antecedent; however, we know that it refers to whites who maintain Jim Crow. Later, James hears a Black student in the dentist’s waiting talking about language and the power of words to construct and manipulate meaning.
As I wrote “Paper,” I had these two stories in mind, specifically I thought about Morrison when she talks about the power of language to “evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive ‘othering’ of people and language.” Morrison points out that a Black writer she must actively engage with this language, confronting it and subverting it, calling upon her readers to interrogate it. White writers, she points out, don’t have to do that, even though they traffic in the same language and their works carry within them the connotations of race. She makes this abundantly clear in Playing in the Dark where she points out the Africanist presence underneath the surface of American literature.
I rarely write any creative fiction or poetry. Usually, I only write such pieces when someone asks me to do a reading. I write them for those occasions because I don’t necessarily want to read academic work and it gives me a chance to work in a new medium, bringing my research into a work of fiction. “Paper” arose out just such a moment when Jadyn DeWald asked me to be part of a reading on campus.
When I started thinking about “Paper,” I knew that I wanted to attempt something similar to Morrison in “Recitatif” and Gaines’ subversion in “The Sky is Gray.” I knew I wanted to undercut expectations through language, purposefully misguiding, in some ways the reader by using words that pointed towards tools and transactions instead of words that depicted the reality of the narrative, that the initial narrator is buying enslaved individuals — Silas, Delia, Saul, Barnabas, and Stephen — for his plantation.
The use of “them,” “items,” and “things” don’t have antecedents in the first part of the narrative. The reader is left to determine who or what these words refer to. Based on the conext, the reader may well determine that the “items” the narrator purchases are enslaved individuals, but the reader may not do that. Instead, the reader may just view the “items” as farming and household implements to help the narrator and his family.
By not naming the enslaved individuals in the first part, I wanted to make readers complicit in the act of the narrator’s buying and dehumanizing of the individuals he purchases. I wanted the reader to, when the turn happens in the second part, to realize their complicity in this act, the ease with which they could fall into the use of language that, while referencing human beings, makes them see the people as nothing more than tools and numbers. I wanted readers to be co-creators of the text.
From the second narrator, we see that these “items” were people. They were the narrator’s ancestors. We see their stories and their lives through her eyes, through the stories her family maintained of Silas, Deila, Saul, Barnabas, and Stephen. They were humans, not just numbers “locked up in an invisible column in the middle of the page.” They mattered. They lived.
This aspect of the story comes from my time in the archives at Auburn University where I taught for two years. While there, I had students utilize the archives in my American literature classes. I wanted students to see the materials housed in the archives and to think about the archives in relation to what we were reading in my American literature class. At Auburn, most of the eighteenth and nineteenth century archives contain papers from enslavers and large plantation owners. As such, there are countless bills of sale for individuals, and when students saw these bills of sale, in front of them and not on a page, made them see the reality of the texts they read.
For me, one bill of sale stood out. It was a simple scrap of paper. When I pulled the paper out of the folder, the first thing I saw was a tabulation of nine numbers, totaling “1042” and someone’s name. When I flipped over the paper, it read, “Bills of sale for negroes.” That was it. The nine numbers represented people, individuals, mothers, fathers, children, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, and more. They exist on that sheet of paper as numbers, items, tools, transactions.
I don’t know who those individuals were. I do not know their names. The stripping away of their humanity, of their very being, prompted me to write this story and to interrogate the ways we think about and use language. The second narrator brings Silas, Delia, Saul, Barnabas, and Stephen to life, keeping their memory and existence alive through the stories passed down from generation to generation. The stories that tell the truth of their existence, not the “truth” purported by the first narrator.
I wanted, through “Paper,” to have readers confront the ways that language dehumanizes individuals. I want readers to engage with it, to cause them to trun the mirror upon themselves and reflect on their own thoughts and positions. I hope that “Paper,” on some level, does this.